Joel Petersen is going places. Besides being the bassist for Omaha indie rockers turned synth stars, The Faint, he has also gone off and started his own side project under the moniker Broken Spindles. The endeavor originally started out as a soundtrack for a friend’s video project. After Joel had recorded three or four songs, his friend didn’t feel like the music was right for his project but Joel was already off and running. The recording stretched into a whole record and Broken Spindles was born.
His first release in September of 2002 was regarded by much of the music community with mixed reception. While many reviews lauded his artistic vision, I remember reading review after review that seemed to throw its arms up in the air and say, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
In all honesty I had much the same reaction. I picked the first album up on a road trip and listened to it so much I almost went insane. I didn’t so much like it, as I was obsessed with the sounds. It combined some of the most intricate and infuriating electronica I have ever heard with haunting natural instrumentals drifting through relentless synthetic meanderings. It was as if this guy had come up with a million good ideas on how to make synth music and then just fired them all at me at once. I couldn’t take it.
Fast-forward two years and I am talking to Joel Peterson on the phone. He sounds like a really nice guy; very sharp but not pretentious, impressively verbose and at the same time soft-spoken. I am asking him some questions about the new album from Broken Spindles, “Fulfilled/Completed”. The reason I took the interview was because I was ecstatic with the album. It was as if it had been carefully examined, broken down, distilled, rebuilt and then infused with a fresh scent of lemon. What happened?
“I think actually going through the process of doing a whole record on your own, I kind of learned a lot, how to make songs sound better as I do them. Working on, like what kick drum works best with what songs. Technical things like that. I think I have a little more critical ear than I used to now that I have to focus on every little thing. Like in The Faint we all listen to everything. But this is all me now so I am trying to get better as far as things I am hearing. I think settling down a little bit had a pretty big influence on everything. After I’m done for the day I can come home and work on music for a few hours. It’s kind of nice to fall into that routine.”
He has recently bought a home and has “settled down”. This makes sense. “Fulfilled/Complete” does give the impression, if only through its quality, that there is some amount of stability in Joel’s life. It takes the energy and ingenuity of the first album and focuses it into 10 damn fine songs. There are also new additions to the album. A wider array of instruments, more pop oriented tunes and there are even lyrics. The addition of lyrics particularly stands out as an advancement from the debut. While there is much to be said for instrumentals, the first Broken Spindles suffered from its lack of lyrical content. The lyrics in “Fulfilled/Complete” are simple yet engaging, drawing attention at points and giving way to the music where appropriate.
“I think I have stuff to say. I wouldn’t say I have one big speech or anything to get out there. It just came about in the writing process that where a bass line or keyboard riff would usually come into my head, a vocal line would instead. That was actually what happened when I was writing “To Die, For Death”. It was the first song I wrote.”
The song he is referring to is a dark and driving guitar piece that, as the name betrays, is focused on human mortality. This was one of the first songs that caught my ear on the album. Though some may say it is a pessimistic, fatalist sort of song, Joel doesn’t think of it that way at all.
“I actually see that as a very positive song. It’s like ‘Hey I’m happy with everything in my life. I could die and have no regrets.’ I think that is the underlying theme for the record. I feel like I am happy with my life and I feel complete and fulfilled.”
The songs on the album range all over the board both stylistically and lyrically. One is a creeping catchy piece about capitalism, the next a sweeping instrumental with nary a percussion instrument. Then another instrumental with Faint-esque guitars and searing dancability. One of the most interesting tracks was, “Fall in and Down” a staccato electronic piece of criticism on belief and religion.
“It’s more pointed at Communion and the Eucharist when you think about how gross that really is and then the broader sense of religion. And it refers to the fact that I’ve made my choice and how that brings peace in my life because I’m not looking for any of that bullshit.”
Despite the eclectic mix on the album there seems to be a congruity that was lacking on the first album. In the era of single song downloads and album supported one hit wonders, Joel seems to have achieved that illusive attribute of cohesiveness.
“It was something I tried to do with the first record but it was harder to do with more scattered ideas, and also because I didn’t intend to make an album in the first place. But this one I had one goal in mind and that was making the best record that I can make. As I got about 7 tracks into it, I started feeling kind of a hole here I need something more upbeat or guitar based to balance the record. I tried to keep the whole in mind as I was making the record.”
His progression in style is marked also by a progression in record labels. The first Broken Spindles’ record did not, as many would have expected, come out on Saddle Creek. It came out instead on Tiger Style, the label that supports many fine instrumental musicians like Tristeza and Apple Seed Cast. But for the second album there was a returning to the fold.
“I decided to do the first record with Tiger Style because up until that point, I had only ever known Saddle Creek as a record label and I wanted to see what else was out there. Saddle Creek makes it look kind of easy. They make smart decisions so stuff doesn’t really go wrong that often. I wanted to see if that was really the case. But I ended up realizing that I didn’t have the best communication with Tiger Style. Saddle Creek is like ten blocks from my house so if I ever had any questions I could literally just walk over there. Being 1,500 miles away from [Tiger Style] the home base was a little frustrating on both parts. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. Stuff slipped through the cracks communication wise. When I realized I wanted to make another record I asked if I could put it on another label and they were really nice about it. At that point I went into Saddle Creek and said, “Here’s a demo of what I’ve been working on. What do ya think?” I had to twist their arm a little bit and then they put it out.”
Not only did they put out the album, but Mike Mogis of Saddle Creek’s “Bright Eyes” jumped on board to produce. His production work went hand in hand with Joel’s perfectionist tendencies and helped in creating the album’s unique sound. After being in The Faint, Joel is starting from square one with Broken Spindles. I saw The Faint about a year ago in Salt Lake and was impressed at the size of the crowds and the theatrics. Last time Joel toured with broken Spindles, it wasn’t quite as grandiose. But it was satisfying.
“Faint tours are quite a bit more of everything. Broken Spindles is quite a bit smaller. If anyone shows up I’m happy. Even performance wise its very different. But I like that I get to do both. It’s a totally different creative outlet.”
Though I am a fan of Broken Spindles, I can’t help but notice that The Faint is lagging on the new album. I decided it was time I pinned Joel to the wall. Hey man! What’s the deal with no Faint albums for three years while you put out 2 new ones on the side? Are you holding them up? Are you breaking them up? What’s the deal Yoko!?
“You are very observant. You should be saying are they holding you up. To make five people happy takes a lot longer than to make one person happy. We are mixing our next record. We are about seven songs into it. We should be finished in a couple weeks.”
“Fulfilled/Complete” is the album that you would want in order to hop onto the Broken Spindles wagon. If you let the first slide by, you may be forgiven, but this album begs consideration. It is hard to see anything but good things coming from this guy in the future.